Photo by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
After 35 years, Water Street Studio founders say it’s time “to call it a day.”
It’s a hospitable-looking building; with mellow old stone walls and a bright red door to entice you inside. As you enter, you will discover a treasure house of items made by some of the most talented crafters in Nova Scotia. Displayed on wooden shelving—where age and care have burnished the wood to a perfect patina—you will find everything from soft woolen scarves and glossy ceramic bowls to pewter jewellery and sparkling glassware. One-of-a-kind items vie for attention everywhere you look.
Welcome to Water Street Studio in downtown Pictou. The shop is run by partners Delia Burge and Anne MacDonald. Their partnership has lasted longer than most marriages—Burge was one of the original seven founders when the studio was founded 40 years ago, and MacDonald joined the group eight years later. They have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences. As one speaks, the chances are the other will be nodding approvingly, completely in sync with the words flowing.
The shop got its start on the third floor of the old YMCA building 40 years ago. A few women wanted to do some sewing and weaving—Burge, for example, works primarily with wool from a rare breed of sheep she raises on her own farm—and they just couldn’t find the space or time at home. The women got together to rent a studio and gradually others joined them, forming a co-op. As word spread, people became curious about what they were doing and would drop by to have a look. Obviously, they liked what they saw. It wasn’t long before a potter and a woodworker—who had also been admitted to the group—asked if it would be okay to sell from the space. Soon they had what amounted to a real store. They decided they needed street-level space to accommodate all those eager shoppers and moved into their present Water Street location 35 years ago.
Initially, the space was half studio/half shop. Hence the lingering name. But production gradually moved back into the various crafters’ homes as their children grew older and the studio side of the operation disappeared. Now, it’s strictly retail.
There are three different kinds of merchandise in the store. First, there’s the co-op-produced work, then there are wholesale goods purchased from makers and manufacturers at craft shows, and finally, there are crafts in the store on consignment. The first selection is a labour of love, the second gives them plenty of good quality merchandise with which to fill the shelves, and the third allows them to carry more expensive, specialty items without taking a financial risk on them selling.
Because fashions in craft come and go—remember long crocheted vests or tooled leather belts!?—the inventory of the store changes. This natural trend has accelerated in recent years, possibly due to COVID-19. Jewellery has lost some of its cache and pottery sales are booming. People are writing letters and sending snail mail to their friends and family, perhaps as a result of the isolation we’re all feeling. The other day a customer came into the store and told MacDonald: “My cousin and I are writing letters to each other every couple of weeks.” As a result, their cards are flying off the display stands. Similarly, kits are increasingly popular, whether painting, embroidery, hooking, or some other craft. People want creative ways to fill their time at home.
The store has also increased its local inventory. “We used to sell a lot of matryoshka dolls from Russia and lacquered trays,” says Burge, although there are none in the store now. “We got really high-quality imports. There used to be incredible stuff from China. Then women stopped embroidering in their villages and went to the cities to work in tech instead.”
At the same time, what customers were looking for gradually changed and they started paying more attention to where an item was sourced. “Tourists would pick something up and put it back down if it was made in Indonesia. And COVID made it worse. People want to support local and small,” MacDonald explains. Even local customers, who used to shop there for unique imported items, are now more inclined to purchase things made close by.
COVID, and the internet, also had an impact on the relationship they have with their wholesale suppliers. “They’re selling online on Etsy [an online marketplace for handcrafted items] and they’re insanely busy,” says MacDonald. “People want to treat themselves.” If they feel uncomfortable going into a shop, they can fulfil that need online with the click of a mouse. There’s also been an embargo on craft trade fairs for the last two years. As a result, the partners are having to work harder to get inventory into the store.
Yet, the shop continues to thrive. There may be fewer international visitors, but locals—intent on supporting their own—are making up the difference. New sellers are joining the ranks and new items are filling the shelves.
Nonetheless, the partners are ready to call it a day. “We’re old!” says MacDonald with a laugh, while Burge nods in vigorous agreement. They want to retire from the daily obligation running a shop entails. All these years later, they still embrace the hippy and back-to-the-land movement that drew them to the north shore of Nova Scotia in the first place. They’ve got sheep to care for, handcrafted items to produce, and grandchildren to spoil. So, if anyone has a fancy to immerse themselves in a world that successfully embraces the extraordinary, there might just be a shop in Pictou waiting for someone new to take the (handcrafted, authentic leather) reins.